Posted by Darth Krzysztof
16 Planting, 595 CY
Liberty arrived at the Midnight Salute early with a basket of corn muffins. As she reached the front entrance, the door opened, allowing the corpulent form of Balabar Smenk out into the Vein. The sorcerer had just enough time to realize how unusual his presence here was before a spark of recognition flashed through his eyes, freezing her in place. “Ahh Miss Grace. The other Miss Grace. I was just speaking with your sister. Lovely girl. The stories she does tell.”
“Boss Smenk,” she managed; she couldn’t get “Talking’s all you’d better do with her” or “Leave my sister alone” to come out. I’ve hated this man for years, Liberty thought. Even before I knew that he’s the sort to traffic with necromancers. But he doesn’t know that I know about Filge, so maybe I can play this cool. If I don’t choke on the stink of his perfume…
“I’m afraid I can’t stay to chat. One of my tenants was assaulted in his home. Terrible business. I suppose I shall have to leave it with the authorities…” His glance had all the subtlety of an ogre’s fart.
Hellfire. He knows. Liberty’s breathing shallowed out, and her eyes widened, though Smenk couldn’t see that behind the ash-tinted spectacles. Shit! He probably recognizes the spectacles! Say something, throw him off the scent. But no words would come.
A cruel little smile crossed his face. Gods, even his lips are fat. How a man like this can live without my sweets, I’ll never know.
Burn him down, now. He’s alone, and it’s still early; there’s nobody around. It would be so easy… so quick, to make him pay for everything he’s done to this town, and to you… But she couldn’t do that, either. Killing him would create more problems than it solved, no matter how badly she wanted to.
“By the by, I dropped by Benazel’s for a little something, and didn’t see his apprentice around. I do hope he is well. Have a lovely day. Miss Grace.” With that, Smenk strolled away like a man without a care in the world.
Let him walk, Libby. His time’s gonna come. And it’ll be that much worse for him if he crosses Drake, too.
Once Smenk had vanished from sight, Liberty went inside and ran up the stairs to knock on Constance’s door, fighting to calm her blood. Threaten me, threaten my sister, just because you don’t like how we handled your necromancer. I knew we should have killed Filge when we had –
Constance came to the door in her most modest housecoat, though she was barelegged, and probably naked, beneath it. “Come on in,” she said brightly, taking the basket from her sister. “Where’ve you been? Cairn-robbing? Good to have you back, anyway; Delia never brings us the good stuff when you’re gone.”
Liberty sat beside her sister on the bed. “I ran into Smenk downstairs. What did you talk about?”
“Just business.” Constance tucked into one of the corn muffins with an mmm sound. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Did he ask you about me? Or Drake, or… anybody else?” They’d brought Mom and Xan into their expedition after the last time she’d spoken to Constance, and maybe it was best to keep a few things from her.
“No, nothing like that.” Constance held the muffin out to look at it. “Did you change your recipe? This is amazing.”
“I drizzled honey on the tops. He didn’t touch you, did he?”
Constance actually looked shocked. “What? No. He’s a perfect gentleman, Libby. Honestly, this town gives him such a hard time.”
Okay, this just got weird. “Connie, I think he’s coming after us. Drake and me, I mean. And I don’t want you to get hurt, if he comes at you to get to me.”
“It doesn’t matter which direction the trouble comes from.” Constance finished her muffin, started reaching for a second one, then reconsidered. “I can take care of myself, little sister. Didn’t I tell you that last time?”
“I know! I just worry.”
“Well, how do you think I feel? You’re the one throwing yourself into danger.” Constance paused. “But I am so proud of you.”
Constance nodded. “You’re starting your life.”
“I guess I am, aren’t I? I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”
“Of course not; you’ve been too busy living it.”
Connie’s always right. She sidled closer to Constance and held out her left hand, where she wore the ring of feather falling. “Hey, look at this. We found this in the cairn.”
“That is beautiful, Libby.”
“There’s more, too. There’s a lot more.” Sorry, Xan. “We’re going to the Free City to see about selling some of it.”
“Be careful there. I hear it’s much bigger than you or I can imagine.” A touch of mirth made her smile a little less mysterious. “Try to have some fun, though.”
“I will. And I’ll try to bring you back something nice.”
“You better.” She took another muffin, biting into it.
I still don’t want to leave you alone for a week or more. “Have you seen Drake in the last couple of days?”
Constance frowned. “No, I haven’t.”
“It’s probably not worth worrying about. We found an owlbear cub; he plans to train it. He’s probably busy doing that.”
“Mmm,” Constance said. Liberty couldn’t be sure if it was a noncommittal agreement or a yummy sound. “Don’t have too much fun, though. There’s a lot more than three elves in the Free City, and I don’t want you to lose your damned mind.”
“I’ll be careful,” the sorcerer said, though it had been on her mind ever since the plan had come together. “Oh! That reminds me. I, um, I talked to Tirra.”
“And she’s not interested.”
“Oh, sweetie.” Constance’s hand found her sister’s shoulder. “Wait. Not interested in girls? In humans? Or just in you?”
“Girls.” Strangely, revisiting this topic didn’t carry the sting Liberty had expected. It was just another bit of news, like the weather.
“They throw off strange signals, I know. Elf-straight isn’t anything like human-straight. How are you holding up?”
“I’m okay. I’ll be okay.” She knew it was true, too, even if she wasn’t sure why. “Least I tried, right?”
“Right.” Constance made a fist and tapped her sister’s shoulder with it. “Proud of you, like I said.”
“Thanks.” She’s okay, Liberty thought. She’ll be fine. But if I can’t find Drake to keep an eye on her, maybe someone else can… “You know, Tirra said that Auric was in love with a whore. Is it anyone you know?”
Constance stared down at the half-eaten muffin in her hands, unnaturally silent.
Oh. Oh, boy.
“No wonder you knew he wasn’t with Tirra.”
The silence deepened somehow.
“Do you feel the same way?” Liberty didn’t get a response, as she predicted, and she couldn’t read anything in Constance’s body language to answer the question. Is this how it’s gonna be when your secrets are the ones on the table, Connie? At least you aren’t kicking me out this time. “Tirra said it wouldn’t last, but…”
“She did?” That got Constance’s attention. It also upset her.
“Yes, well.” Liberty scrambled to fix this. “What does she know?” Waving her hands over her body, she said with a smirk, “I mean, she passed up a shot at this.”
“Yeah.” Constance gave her a smile, but Liberty saw right through the false reassurance. She didn’t even try. This is as vulnerable as I’ve seen her in… years, maybe.
“Hey. Don’t worry about it, Connie. All you can do is play the hand you’re dealt. You know who else loves you? Me.” She threw her arms around her sister, felt Constance melt into it until she returned the gesture. “That’s gonna last.”
“I know,” Constance said. “I love you too.”
“I should go, though. Allustan’s expecting me.” It was a half-lie; if she didn’t get out of here soon, they’d both end up crying.
“Okay. Be careful. Come see me when you get back from the Free City.” Constance gave one last squeeze before releasing her sister. As Liberty reached the door, Constance added, “Oh, and thanks for the muffins.”
“Any time,” Liberty said with a smile as she left.
She cut across the field to Allustan’s house. The wizard came to the door and ushered her inside with a smile. “I must say, Miss Grace, that your visits have been the most enjoyable part of these past few days. So many mysteries you’ve uncovered.” He sat in the tired old wicker chair next to his dragonchess set; Liberty carried a footstool across the room to sit near him.
“You have no idea, Master. The Whispering Cairn is the tomb of Zosiel, one of the Wind Dukes of Aaqa.”
Allustan grinned. “As I suspected! Excellent. The Vaati were the oldest civilization to build tombs in the Cairn Hills, you see. All of the cultures that have followed them simply emulate their practice. But this is the first royal tomb to come to my notice.”
“I drew as much of it as I could.” She handed him her journal, and the wizard thumbed through the pages, nodding. “There were frescoes depicting the Battle of Pesh, and The Rod of Law, and Meeshka the wolf-spider, and –”
“Miska. Yes, I see. Your new staff, there; you found it in the Cairn?”
“We did,” Liberty said. “It must represent the Rod of Law, right?”
“It’s properly called the Rod of Seven Parts, now. It was sundered when the Wind Dukes used it to strike Miska down at the Battle of Pesh. I’ve told you about the great war of the Age Before Ages, yes?”
“Of course. The Wind Dukes versus the Queen of Chaos and her primordials.”
Allustan nodded, handing the journal back to Liberty. “The empire of the Vaati once spanned entire worlds. Now they’re barely a memory. The weapon they made to end their war is virtually all that’s left, and even that lies in pieces.” He looked over the dragonchess board at her. “But even that is one of the most legendary artifacts in all of folklore.”
“Well,” she said with a laugh, “we didn’t find that. But we found a few other treasures.” She reached into her belt pouch for the adamantine loop, passing it to the wizard.
“Incredible,” Allustan said.
“It’s a talisman of the sphere, right? The Wind Dukes used them to control spheres of annihilation?”
The wizard nodded. “Indeed. The spheres were holes in the very continuity of the multiverse. Anything they touched was destroyed utterly. After the Battle of Pesh, legend holds that the Vaati scattered them to the farthest corners of the Great Wheel.”
How can a wheel have corners? “Xan thinks it’s valuable enough that we’d have to take it to the Free City to find a buyer.”
“Oh, this is priceless. Talismans may be far more numerous than the spheres today, but the art of enchanting these has been lost for eons. My advice to you is to keep it. One must always be prepared,” he said with a wink and a smile.
“I’ll follow your advice. Thank you, Master.”
“Of course. Tell me, is your exploration of the Cairn at an end?” When Liberty nodded, Allustan asked, “Then could you show me where you found it? I would love to see it firsthand; I’m sure you’ll understand.”
“Of course.” They moved to his ponderous desk, where he found a map of the Cairn Hills. “It was right about… here,” she pointed. She described its entrance, and spent the better part of an hour telling him about its traps and guardians. He took no notes, but Allustan was sure to remember every word. He was the smartest man in Diamond Lake, after all.
“You know,” Allustan said once she ran out of things to say, “There was a book at the Free City’s Great Library about the Battle of Pesh. I would like to be sure that Zosiel was there.”
“Do you mean the Chronicle of Chan?”
“Because we’re heading to Greyhawk for a few days.”
“Excellent!” Allustan fetched his magic quill and set it to writing. “I’ll give you a writ to check it out for me. For us, really. I’m sure you’ll want to read it.”
“Definitely.” She thanked him profusely, neatly folding the paper in half so she could tuck it into her journal. “I’ll bring it to you as soon as I can.”
“Oh, there’s no hurry.” As Liberty got up to leave, Allustan said, “Oh, there’s one more thing. That man at the old observatory, Filge.”
Liberty paused. “Did you scare him off? Or did you have to turn him to stone?”
“No, that’s just it. He wasn’t there. I found some sliced ropes on the uppermost floor, and a great deal of broken glass. There was no trace of him, aside from a few bloodstains.”
Damn. Damn it.
“I told Valkus that there might be a necromancer in town, but, of course, I didn’t have anything concrete for him. I also left Smenk’s name out of my report. I leave it to you to decide whom to trust with these accusations.”
Liberty swallowed. “I just saw Smenk this morning. He knows we were up there, so I don’t think Filge left town, after all.”
“Then you shouldn’t need me to tell you to be careful. Still: be careful.”